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The Politics of Women's Health

Emerging Issues: Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Since human embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998, some scientists, biotechnology companies, and research advocates have made dramatic claims about their medical potential, promising treatments and cures for a wide range of chronic, degenerative, and acute diseases— including diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Their predictions have won impassioned support from many patient advocacy groups and stirred hopes in all who want to alleviate the suffering that these diseases inflict. Although some of these claims have been exaggerated, and although no treatments based on embryonic stem cells have been produced so far, many researchers believe that significant breakthroughs may be close at hand.

In addition to building excitement, embryonic stem cell research has also generated heated controversy. The critical voices most often heard during debates are those with strong moral objections to all embryonic stem cell work, on the grounds that it uses and then destroys human embryos for the sole purpose of harvesting stem cells. Yet a number of reproductive rights advocates have concerns, too—specifically about a type of stem cell research known as research cloning.

Objections to Research Cloning

The crucial distinction between embryonic stem cell research and research cloning is often blurred in the public debate. Embryonic stem cell research uses embryos initially produced in fertility clinics to help women become pregnant. So long as those embryos are donated with informed consent, which some people wish to do when they no longer need them for reproductive purposes, most women’s health advocates have no objections to their use in research.

Research cloning—also called somatic cell nuclear transfer, embryo cloning, and therapeutic cloning—requires young women to undergo invasive and risky egg extraction procedures solely for the purpose of research. If it were to be perfected, research cloning would open a gateway not just to therapeutic applications but to efforts to clone a human being or to engineer the traits of future children (see “Genetic Modi- fication of Future Generations” on p. 806). Unlike dozens of countries around the world, the United States has not yet established a federal prohibition on reproductive cloning, making it more likely that unethical researchers would use cloned embryos to attempt to produce a cloned baby.

Still, some reproductive rights advocates have hesitated to speak out against research cloning out of apprehension that their concerns will be used by anti–abortion rights activists to elevate the legal and moral status of embryos in efforts to deny access to abortion.

With new developments such as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells)—specially treated cells that can be processed to behave somewhat like embryonic stem cells—research cloning may not even be necessary for generating patient-specific and disease-specific stem cell lines that could be used for medical therapies.

Concerns About Egg Extraction

Many feminists and social justice activists are concerned about research cloning and the egg extraction required for it. The envisioned treatments could require many thousands of donated eggs, requiring thousands of women to undergo the substantial risks of multiple egg extraction, which uses high doses of potent drugs. Although women already undergo these procedures in infertility clinics, the risks—even as inadequately defined as they are—may be justified because there is a demonstrated possibility that a baby will result. It is unwarranted to ask women to undergo these risks solely for research cloning. Not only are the benefits unclear, but there are not yet sufficient data on health risks to make true informed consent possible.

In addition, many women’s health advocates are concerned about the creation of a larger market in human eggs. Women providing eggs for other people’s fertility treatments generally receive reimbursements that range from $5,000 to $10,000, and some ads on college campuses have offered as much as $50,000 to $100,000 for eggs from women with desired traits (so-called Ivy League eggs).

It is unlikely that many women would provide eggs for research without reimbursement, and economically disadvantaged and young women would be most vulnerable to such incentives. Whether eggs are for research or helping others to have a baby, all women have the right to be informed about the potential risks. For this reason, advocacy groups are now calling for a national registry that would track the long-term effects of these procedures on women who donate eggs. 


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